World View: Russia’s Intervention in Syria Increases Saudi-Mideast Sectarian Tension

Saudi Arabia

This morning’s key headlines from

  • Sunni jihadist suicide bomber targets Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia
  • Russia’s military intervention in Syria inflames jihadists in Saudi Arabia

Sunni jihadist suicide bomber targets Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia

Al-Mashhad mosque in Najran, Saudi Arabia
Al-Mashhad mosque in Najran, Saudi Arabia

A Sunni jihadist suicide bomber on Monday killed three people and wounded dozens by attacking the Shia al-Mashhad mosque in Najran, a city in southeastern Saudi Arabia near the border with Yemen. The city is the historic center of the Ismailis, a Shia sect which has long complained of victimization by Wahhabis, whose theology prevails in Saudi Arabia and, in extreme forms, is used by violent Sunni jihadists to justify their acts.

The attacker has been identified as Abu Ishaq al-Hijazi, a Saudi national who has spent four years with the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS or ISIL or Daesh). After the attack, a video prerecorded by the attacker appeared on the internet. In it, he blamed the Shias, the Saudi soldiers who protect the Shia mosques, and also the pilots whose warplanes attack ISIS in Syria:

My first message is a threat to the rejectionist Ismailis… you will not enjoy life in the [Arabian] Peninsula. […]

My second message, to the soldiers of the tyrant who protect the polytheists and their temples in (Saudi Arabia) […] you will not be safe in your homes or your offices and we’ll target you as long as the planes of your guardian hit Muslims with Crusader planes in Iraq and Syria.

Al Arabiya and Reuters and Arab News

Russia’s military intervention in Syria inflames jihadists in Saudi Arabia

As I suggested last month in “13-Sep-15 World View — Russia opens a dangerous new chapter in Syria and the Mideast”, one of worst outcomes from Russia’s military intervention in Syria would occur if jihadists saw it as an Orthodox Christian invasion of a Muslim country in the same way that they viewed the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a Christian invasion of a Muslim country.

That is exactly what is happening. Earlier this month, 55 Saudi clerics signed and published a statement calling on all Syrians to join the jihad against Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. The statement said that this was a war launched by “the Orthodox crusader Russia” against the Muslim Syria:

After nearly five years of unrelenting political and military support for the ‘Alawite regime, Russia is now throwing its full weight behind [it] and is intervening directly and militarily to protect the Bashar Al-Assad regime from falling. In light of this most terrible calamity and war crime on the part of an influential country that presumes to be responsible for world justice and peace, we hereby declare the following:

O Russians, the most extreme among Christians – [there is] nothing new under the sun! 36 years ago the communist Soviet Union invaded the Muslim Afghanistan to support the Communist Party and protect it from falling. And now, its successor, the Orthodox crusader Russia, is invading the Muslim Syria to support the ‘Alawite regime and protect it from falling; it must learn a lesson from the fate of its predecessor. The heads of your Orthodox Church have declared [the Russian intervention of Syria] a crusader holy war, just as [George] Bush Jr. did in the past [regarding the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq]. Know that Muslims will redeem their faith by sacrificing their lives, souls, and all they hold dear, and just as they expelled you from Afghanistan, they will bring about you humiliating defeat in Syria, Allah willing.

O, our men in Syria – the calamity afflicting you is severely worsening and your test has lasted a long time… You must fear Allah, repent, and trust in Allah… Know that Russia only intervened to save the regime from certain defeat. Through you, Allah defeated the security [mechanisms] of the regime and its shabiha [militias], followed by its army, and later the Shi’ite Safavid groups from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Through you, He defeated the Party of Satan [i.e. Hezbullah] and He can defeat the Russians [as well]. Therefore, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah, that you may be successful’ (Koran 3:200)… We call on you to hold on, and we urge the men [of the various groups], [all] able and skilled people in all fields, to stay and not leave Syria, and to take part in building and liberating [it]. We call on the able among you to join the ranks of jihad, for this is your hour… Swiftly join the jihad against the enemy of God and your enemy, and Allah will be with you, and the Muslims will stand behind you as much as they can. The dawn of victory is at hand. […]

Allah, please hasten the victory of the people of Syria… and defeat the armies that have conspired against us.

There is no doubt that the majority in Saudi Arabia and Arab countries in general are furious at the Russian intervention in Syria. Nonetheless, the statement has generated quite a bit of debate in Saudi Arabia, including condemnation by many in the media. Some journalists have pointed out that the purpose of the statement is really to incite a generational Muslim mobilization, especially amount Saudi youth. This is quite plausible, since the most of the young jihadists who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s were Saudi youth, and one of them was Osama bin Laden.

According to one journalist, “The new inciters… are firing in our direction once more. The new call for jihad is a new trap to snare the youth.”

As I described last month in “12-Sep-15 World View — Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mosque, site of huge construction accident, has links to 9/11”, the country’s al-Saud ruling family and the Salafist group known as the Wahhabis made an agreement in the 1920s that allowed the al-Saud family to rule the country, and the Wahhabis to control the mosques and religious education. It was the unraveling of that agreement in the 1980-90s that led to the creation of al-Qaeda as an enemy of the West, but also of Saudi Arabia itself. As that agreement continues to unravel, Saudi society itself is split.

Many Saudis were undoubtedly further infuriated last week to read about the visit by Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad to Moscow, and his statement of thanks to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin:

First of all I wanted to express my huge gratitude to the whole leadership of the Russian federation for the help they are giving Syria. If it was not for your actions and your decisions, the terrorism which is spreading in the region would have swallowed up a much greater area and spread over an even greater area.

There is a large but minority Shia population in Saudi Arabia, but they are becoming increasingly frightened by the growing hostility and open sectarianism of many Sunnis. Even Saudi social media messages on the Internet contain increasingly open incitement against Shia. Memri and Guardian (London, 21-Oct) and Reuters

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Saudi Arabia, al-Mashhad mosque, Najran, Islamic State / of Iraq and Syria/Sham/the Levant, IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, Ismailis, Wahhabis, Abu Ishaq al-Hijazi, Syria, Russia, Afghanistan, Orthodox Christianity, Bashar al-Assad, Iran, Iraq
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